Becoming a Religious Movement

The Rev. Peter Morales, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) has written a statement describing a strategic vision for the future of Unitarian Universalism. He envisions a Unitarian Universalism grounded in congregations, while creating a movement outside of the local church. He describes various extra-congregational aspects of our movement, and the fact that many more people identify as Unitarian Universalist than are actually in our churches. Rev. Morales calls for us to become a religious movement.

Many more people identify with a particular religious group without ever being affiliated with a local faith community. Unitarian Universalists are not unique in that. People will identify themselves as Episcopalian, Congregationalist or what have you, without ever darkening the door of a local house of worship—even on Christmas, Easter or high holidays. Many will come to be married or bury a loved one. My guess is that these are people raised in these traditions, who themselves were married by one of their clergy people, who have been to a rite of passage or high holiday service, or who have friends who are involved. The identification is strong enough that they self-report on the census.

Reaching this identified-but-not-affiliated population is a good strategy. Why not reach out to those who already say they are part of us? The Canadian sociologist of religion Reginald Bibby has contributed some important work to this idea. The churches’ response to his work in Canada, not surprisingly, has been to strategize how to reach out to those people and draw them into the local congregation.

Coming up with new sites or modes for those (and other) people to affiliate with the movement is also a good if inventive strategy. What those sites or modes turn out to be may or may not work, but it’s well worth a try. The nature of church—of organized religion—is shifting. I am thankful that Rev. Morales envisions the continued central place for congregations and is imagining other experimental forms.

I wonder if what he has in mind are phenomena like the Lucy Stone housing collective here in Boston or A Third Place worshipping community in Turley, Oklahoma. What could a national ecclesial organization do to support or initiate such expressions of religious community?

If Unitarian Universalism is a religious movement, then the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is its institutional expression. What is the relationship between movement and institution?

Many of us have long spoken of Unitarian Universalism as a movement, perhaps only to avoid the misnomer “denomination.” We are not a denomination, that is, a sub-sect of a larger religion. Once upon a time, Unitarianism and Universalism were Christian denominations, whatever the Church Universal may have thought of us. There is no larger religion to which Unitarian Universalism now belongs (the way the denominations of Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics belong to the religion Christianity, or Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and Conservative belong to Judaism). For better or for worse, we have evolved into our own sui generis.

It is not accurate, then, to describe Unitarian Universalism or the UUA as a denomination. Organizationally, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is, well, an association of congregations. What else would it be?

“Movement” harkens us back to when William Ellery Channing and other early US Unitarians were preaching and advocating for a unique liberal Christian perspective within the established churches of the United States. Unitarianism was a liberalizing movement within American Protestantism. It was not even a denomination at first. Responding to Calvinist orthodoxy, proponents of Unitarianism had a distinct theological voice. They were proposing theological alternatives, as were the Universalists (who were more denominationally minded, though not entirely well organized about it). Unitarians and Universalists had theological distinctives that soon began to move through the broader religious culture—the inherent worth of the human person, the benevolence of a loving God, the use of reason in religion, the moral example of Jesus of Nazareth, and self-culture being some of the major ones.

What are contemporary Unitarian Universalists proposing that could move through the broader culture? What is our distinctive message, around which we are building movement?

There is a distinction to be made, I believe, between religious movements and their institutional expression. For example, religious feminism is a movement. Arising with the second wave of feminism, religious feminism has questioned (and questions) traditional assumptions about the status of women in organized religion, and with this questioning reformulated religious discourse on God (and the Goddess), gender, the body, and hierarchy with implications for ministry, ecclesiology, liturgy and much more. Religious feminism has been a major movement within Judaism, Christianity and Goddess religion and in each of these contexts is unique, even as each strand shares distinctive values, principles, and insights with the others. Ecclesiastical structures have responded to this movement; women’s ordination to ordered ministry and the rabbinate, inclusive language in liturgy and in scripture, and the dissemination of feminine images of the divine are some of the major ones.

The relationship between an organized religion and religious movement, it seems to me, is one of grassroots momentum and institutional response. How does a religious organization spawn a religious movement? There is no such thing as an Association of Religious Feminism, which is promoting religious feminism. There are, of course, women clergy groups, conferences, publishers and writers, local leaders and scholars who give lectures, workshops, publish books and blogs, and so on. This is the nature of a movement. It is an open field of thinking, writing, talking, organizing and meeting.

Organizations form around religious ideas and movements. I’m thinking, too of the new monastic movement and the emergent church movement. These are two, not unrelated, movements in contemporary US Christianity. A denominational head office did not think these up, then strategically plant and nourish them. They emerged from below, the winds of the zeitgeist delivering pollen from one area of growth to another. The conferences, writers, blogs, and so on both gave rise to and cross-pollinated the essential theological and ecclesiastical ideas of new monasticism and emergent church.

The UUA is the  descendent organization that formed around nineteenth-century religious ideas and movements. The purpose of the UUA—as an association of congregations—has been to serve the health of the local church. With a reformulation of the UUA’s purpose, what would its relationship be with other, non-congregational, modes of this “movement”? It seems to me that such an organization would be hard-pressed to initiate something that is actually a religious movement. Unless, perhaps it is responding to or attempting to harness a movement that is already bubbling up. Is that the case, and if so what are this grassroots movement’s features?

Something is missing for me in this picture, and perhaps I am just not seeing it. Should that turn out to be the case, please point me to it: where is the movement on the ground that the UUA will respond to? What are the theological and ecclesiastical distinctives among us today around which a movement is moving?

I like to think one of them is our way of being in relation: covenantal, mutual, democratic (more on this later). I have been thinking that this is best expressed, best lived out and embodied, in a congregation. What other forms can this take? I’m curious and interested in finding out.

Without some sort of distinctive message or proposal (thinking, again, about religious feminism, new monasticism, emergent church) a movement does not move. Without a burning coal at its center, a compelling vision, message, or idea a “movement” will not move.

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13 thoughts on “Becoming a Religious Movement

  1. Why not reach out to those who already say they are part of us?

    Because they’ve made a deliberate decision to identify, but not commit. They are the least likely to support congregation or movement.

    • Bill, I think you’re probably right. But how do we know? How do we know anything about this group, except that they will identify as UU on the census and do not affiliate with any UU community, including Church of the Larger Fellowship. And inviting people to join us who have no interest in commitment or organized religion could be a disaster for whatever congregation they affiliate with! But in the whole wide population of people not involved in Unitarian Universalism, a set that already identifies as such seems like a logical population to tap.

  2. Something is missing for me in this picture, and perhaps I am just not seeing it. Should that turn out to be the case, please point me to it: where is the movement on the ground that the UUA will respond to? What are the theological and ecclesiastical distinctives among us today around which a movement is moving?

    No, I think you’re seeing the picture clearly and that you’re right about this.

  3. Katie Larsell says:

    I think your critique is a good one, albeit, its the same one we always have with UU’ism, “What is our message or center?” if that was obvious then the rest wouldn’t matter.

    However, I do like what Morales is doing. He is thinking about what is coming and imagining that it will be different in the future; although we don’t know how. Just getting that message out is important. Any study of church and demographics points to a cliff coming (American Grace, Putnam and Campbell. Coming up with a positive, flexible response to that is important.

    • I think the critique about having no message or center is way more critical if the UUA is thinking of reinventing itself as a movement. Religious movements are inherently about ideas, message, theology (religious feminism, liberation theology, etc). Without it, what kind of movement is that? I think the UUA can continue to function as the non-denomination denomination, doing the work of an association of congregations, and the question of the message or center is not so critical. We can continue maintaining the institutions without ever settling on a basic message.

      With that said, something has to change. Unitarian Universalism has been in steady decline for the past 40 years. I thank Peter Morales for having the courage to point us toward innovation.

  4. Eliza Blanchard says:

    Peter, you captured and articulated my main problem with Peter Morales’s letter perfectly. Thank you.

  5. But how do we know?

    I know some (and asked ‘em). But a survey of the rest would be a nice idea. I’m guessing we’re targeting the wrong bunch.

  6. Bryan D says:

    The missing part of this discussion, in my opinion, is the input of the people who are being discussed – it’s being carried on almost entirely by UU insiders (here and throughout the UU community). For many years, I was an unaffiliated UU. I’m presently active in a congregation; however, this grew out of my personal history & circumstances and has happened in spite of UU insititutions and current UU theology, not because of them. The religious movement that Peter Morales and others envision is a movement of, by, and for middle-aged middle-class people who came to the UU community as adults. Many of us who grew up in the community or found it as adolescents have a very different understanding of UU community and principles.

  7. @Bryan, The two families I’ve asked this question too were both raised UU and had long stopped participating in the Churches except for Weddings and Funerals. I suspect the involvement as kids in the 60s and 70s was very thin. I wonder if that pattern would hold up if a sample of these identifying-but-not-participating UUs were polled. We may find there UUs on the way out rather than a bunch to bring in.

  8. Isn’t (wasn’t?) liberal religion such a movement, of which the UUA is a part? I think we are far too insular. Why aren’t we talking to liberal Christians of other stripes, liberal Jews, liberal Muslims, liberal continue-the-list-here? That’s the movement, and we’re not even engaged, for the most part, with any of it except our tiny little corner.

  9. Peter, I am with Christian on this … I think that there is a widespread religious movement on the ground right now in North America. It is a great awakening of a sort, but I would call it more of a mass walkout. People are walking out churches everywhere because they have come to believe a couple of basic things about religion. (1) The value of a religion is the effect that it has on people’s lives and ethics. (2) All religions are cultural responses to basic human conditions so no one religion is more true than another and (3) there is no special religious knowledge that is different than any other kind of knowledge. Most of those people are Christian Humanist Transcendentalists: Christian by culture and tradition, Humanist in that they view the purpose of religion as meeting human purposes and transcendentalist in that judge the truth through personal experience.
    Now, Unitarian Universalism is this little, somewhat unusual New England based form of Protestantism that actually gets all of this — in fact, our historic testimony has been building toward this understanding all along. In fact, UU theologians can trace a direct line from Abraham to the current popular thinking about organized religion.
    If UU’s were organized, faithful to their own understandings, and a bit more assertive, they might make themselves useful to the millions who have had it with the exclusivity, “teachiness” and hypocrisy of the churches they are leaving. We are, with mixed success, creating and sustaining institutions in which people can develop a faith, engage in a spiritual practice, be a part of a community, and lead happier and healthier lives.

    • Very interesting! I think you’re right, Tom. Unitarian Universalists are somewhat uniquely poised in the contemporary religious culture in which many would be at home among us. The question before us is, how to reach them. Apparently, congregations are quickly becoming passé and new forms of community are to be better at outreach to those Christian humanist transcendentalists. But what do those forms look like?

  10. Art Ungar says:

    “We are not a denomination, that is, a sub-sect of a larger religion. Once upon a time, Unitarianism and Universalism were Christian denominations, whatever the Church Universal may have thought of us. ”

    Some years ago I asked Harvard Professor Conrad Wright, the eminent historian of U & U history, what is a denomination? He said those who walk together in the same name. He was clear that the UUA was a denomination.

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